Salt Lake used to feel a lot more city-like

Once upon a time, downtown Salt Lake felt like a really big city. The streets were filled with people, and that’s because they were lined with buildings — which served as destinations.

Here’s what it looked like:


The image above shows the corner of 100 South and Main Street. Taken in 1912, it’s clearly an old picture. But it’s also decidedly urban; the buildings are all constructed right up to the sidewalk and there are no gaps, creating a very effective streetwall. If we didn’t know this was Salt Lake, it’d be easy to mistake it for a street in a much bigger city around the turn of the century.

But unlike some other cities that looked like this in 1912, Salt Lake began regressing. Here’s what this spot looks like today:


The two story white building on the corner is the same as the four story white building in the first picture. I don’t know why they reduced its size (and remodeled it) though it was originally built as a two story structure. (Read an excellent blog post on this building, which used to be called the Eagle Emporium, here.)

In any case, thankfully we have TRAX now (though look closely; there are street car lines all over the intersection in the first picture). But other than that, this spot feels remarkably smaller and more provincial than it did 100 years ago. It barely feels like a city any more.

The biggest and most damning reason this happened is because many of the buildings were knocked down to make way for parking lots. Here’s an overhead view:

Screen shot 2013-12-09 at 11.33.04 PM

In the picture above, the white building on the corner is the old Zion’s Bank Building/Eagle Emporium. As is apparent, it’s surrounded by parking lots. Compare that with the first picture, and we see that these parking lots are relatively modern developments.

This is tragic. It’s tempting to look at a city and think, “we have a ton of open, empty space, but it’s just space that hasn’t been developed yet.” But that’s a misconception. The reality is we un-developed most of this space. We regressed.

This PDF on historic downtown Salt Lake bears this conclusion out; in picture after picture Salt Lake feels big, successful and ambitious. It feels like a city and displays many of the characteristics that contemporary designers equate with comfortable, walkable, safe and economically vibrant places.

Today, however, much of that is gone. Aside from five or six blocks on and around Main Street, Salt Lake feels formidable and spread out, more like a suburban office park than an American downtown.

This will not surprise people who carefully study cities, as the same thing happened in some other places. But it’s important to remember what we’ve lost, and I think pictures like the ones above help drive home the point that we spent much of the 20th Century destroying downtown. Only now are we just beginning to repair the damage, though we have a long way to go before we even get back to where we were.

And, just for fun, here are a few other historic photos. This picture shows that same spot and again, it’s all filled with buildings:


This is 300 South and Main. The Judge Building, on the right, still stands. The building to the right of it, across Main and barely in the picture, has been torn down and replaced with a larger but inferior building. The other buildings on the left are mostly empty and “modernized.”

Screen shot 2013-12-09 at 11.22.30 PM

Main Street in 1922 looked at least as urban and vibrant as it does today:

Screen shot 2013-12-09 at 11.49.02 PM


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